Book Review: Dust Bowl, USA: Depression America and the Ecological Imagination, 1929-1941 by Brad Lookingbill

During the 1930s, the American Midwest region witnessed one of its most acute agricultural droughts in the history of the nation.  But this tragic event does not get as much attention as it deserves in history textbooks.  The main reason for this is its coincidence with the Great Depression that precipitated in 1929 with the stock market crash and continued into the next decade. The sweep and magnitude of the Great Depression was such that it overwhelmed attention to an equally catastrophic drought unfolded in several states in the Midwest.  Hence the main purpose of Brad Lookingbill is to fill a perceived deficiency in scholarship pertaining to this event.

Lookingbill does a satisfactory job of covering the basis causes and the most prominent consequences of the event.  As for the causes, Lookingbill identifies expansive and exploitative farming techniques and strategies as a major cause.  In particular, it is the technology of mass-production, innovations in irrigation and unprecedented conservation programs that gradually led to the drought situation.  The impact of the drought was such that vast areas in the Midwest were converted into deserts, irredeemably deeming them unfit for crop cultivation and human habitation.

The pioneers and frontiers people who established settlements in the climatically and geographically challenging prairies of the American Midwest did so out of desperation and avarice.  The author claims that if the early settlers had studied the feasibility of agricultural production, the quality of soil, the suitability of crops to the climate, the historical patterns of rainfall, etc, the tragedy could have been avoided.  The policies of the federal government, especially agricultural policies concerning this region betrayed a lack of experience and an absence of foresight.

Superstition was rife when the Dust Bowl phenomenon took place.  Lookingbill treats the superstitions surrounding the event in detail and demystifies some of them.  One popular perception at the time was that the drought was brought about by divine curse.  Right wing politicians, amply aided by the clergy, propagated the view that the drought was the symbol of a fallen civilization.  The citizens were criticized (quite unjustly) for their immoral acts that invoked the wrath of God. Lookingbill treats proponents of such rumors and falsities with deserved contempt.

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